One week in Chiangmai


It's been quite a week, often too busy to pay attention to the need to blog. Mostly I've been in deep training to become a better motorcycle rider, which requires a lot of driving on lots of curvy roads. More on that later.

I arrived at Chiangmai airport around 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, February 5th. I was in Chiangmai to meet my friend, who is an experienced motorcyclist, and with whom I was hoping to do some serious motorcycling around Southeast Asia.

My friend has asked to remain anonymous, both in words and photographs, so from here on I'll refer to him as MF (my friend).

MF kindly met me at the airport on his motorcycle, with bags of fresh fruit for my room, and drove me to the guesthome where I'd made reservations some months before. While underway, my biggest piece of luggage rested between his legs at the front of his motorcycle, and the rest was on my back/around my neck. Vivid reminders of motorcycle taxis in Bangkok, except not as fast—he was being careful!

We arrived at the Little Guesthouse, just off Mani Noppharat Road, at Chang Phuak, the "north gate" of the 13th-century moat and wall (restored in the 19th century), where hosts Meaow (female) and Paisan (male) welcomed me back, and took me to my room. (I stayed with them in 2007 in a too-short visit.) Meaow is a doll, a trim, very pretty Thai of around 50 years, and Paisan's nice, too. My room is very nice—makes my room in Bangkok look like a hovel in comparison. Best thing: lots of space in the washroom.

(For the first few days, every so often I'd hear someone singing in the alley next to my room. It was kind of haunting; I thought it had a bit of a Middle East sound to it. The day I walked up the alley and found the local mosque I understood.)

Went to Mr. Beer, a local motorcycle rental firm, where MF had kindly arranged for an almost-new, 125cc Honda Dream to be reserved for me. It's not the kind of motorcycle I'd choose to zoom around Toronto, but it's grand here. It's a very popular bike in Thailand, very light and quick, very responsive. Which is needed, because Thai traffic is VERY difficult to get around in unless you ride a motorcycle the way Thais do.

The basic rule is: if there's an opening, you're entitled to go through it. I've no idea what the law actually says about it, but that's the way motorcyclists get around. So the traffic at an intersection is never static; it's in constant motion, as the motorcyclists and a few bicyclists manoeuver their way through the lines of cars/trucks/minibuses/big buses to get as close as they can to the front of the pack. The motherlode is when you are at the front, and can start out so quickly as the light turns green that you end up in front, all alone, and can relax a little.

In general, though, there's absolutely no relaxing when driving in this situation. People and vehicles are darting from every direction, often seeming not to look, and you have to be ready for it. Cars will decide they're going to change lanes, will assume you can deal with it, and over they come. Usually you can deal with it, astonishingly enough. If you need to go around a car/truck/bus, any piece of pavement will do, especially if the vehicle is stopped.

As soon as MF and I dealt with renting a motorcycle, off we went "up the mountain," on a very twisty road that leads to the Phuping Palace, across from which there's a tiny village with a number of food stalls that serve excellent food. Really excellent.

Ah, the food. The food has been just outstanding. So far, we've eaten:

  • Twice at a restaurant just west of Chang Phuak that serves traditional Thai food that is absolutely scrumptious. I especially recommend the crispy fish.

  • At the Canyon View restaurant (there's a link there if you roll over it), perched on the top of a cliff, though the "canyon" is really an old quarry. The "crispy fish with spicy mango salad" was my favourite, but honorable mention goes to the twisty pork bits with the deep-fried lime leaves and the steamed fish with pickled plums.

  • A food stall (in the middle of a parking lot) near MF's place that specializes in duck, where we had, wait for it, some delicious, perfect duck; terrific shrimp in a "bird's nest" made of edible something-or-other; and an astonishing, rich, rich, duck glaze.

  • After visiting a local market, we bought at a stall wonderful marinated barbequed chicken breast, a little dry, but helped by a sauce that accompanied it; keb muu, a Chiangmai specialty, crispy pork skin; and a salsa with a chili pepper base. Wow!

  • At MF's "local" restaurant, which is more like a bunch of tables and chairs around a stall with a tarp over it, a terrific lunch, the highlight of which was the iced coffee laced with chocolate.

  • At an Issan (northeast Thailand, the culture of which is partly Lao) restaurant, which was really a semi-permanent stall with tables and chairs on the sidewalk, we had a meal of great barbequed chicken, a soup that we made at the table, and a fantastic spicy cucumber salad.

  • A vegetarian restaurant in the old city, the highlight of which was the great big mushrooms, some with the texture of jerky, the others crunchy

  • The fun isn't over just because it's breakfast time. At one guesthouse restaurant with a farang menu, I spotted "papaya salad with noodles," decided that would do for breakfast, and it truly did!

  • At the Orchard, a restaurant/club run by a long-time expat known as "Guitarman" in his younger days, I had, at MF's recommendation, what he called "the best hamburger in the world." Don't know about that, but it sure was good.

My motorcycle riding hasn't been without mishap. I've missed a couple of curves, and, luckily, ended up in leaves and branches, my ego taking the worst of the bruising. I'm convinced this happens because I'm concentrating on keeping up with MF, and not at the task at hand. Unfortunately, once you panic, it's too late. On one occasion, the chain came off the bike when we were almost all the way to a Hmong village we'd decided to visit, right out in the middle of nowhere. While we were trying to figure out what to do, it occurred to us that we might well be able to push it up a hill, and coast down the mountain we were on for a significant distance, and stop anywhere we thought the denizens might have tools. So that's what we did, and I rode for some ways until it started going uphill again, and stopped. But how often does this happen? The place the bike stopped was about four metres away from—a mechanic!

The mechanic had gone into "town" for "parts," so we walked around, talked (well, MF did) to some locals, would have bought some coffee if the stall we'd approached hadn't been selling whisky instead, petted some dogs, and so on. When the mechanic got back he was happy to fix my bike up. He took the chain guard apart, found the chain, even when reinstalled, very loose, so he removed some links. He also made some other adjustments I didn't understand. Then, time to let us know what the damage was—20 baht (about $0.50)! I gave him 40, and he was happy to accept.

And it turned out that it was a lucky trip to the mechanic. The result of his pulling three chain links is that the motorcycle sounds much, much better now than when I took it from the rental shop.

Anyway, it looks like I'm not going to be ready after three weeks to be long-distance motorcycling with someone of MF's calibre (he's been riding for 35 years). So I told MF I'm not going to worry about it, I'm just going to ride at speeds and skills levels I feel comfortable with, and we'll take the rest as it comes.

On the other hand, my riding in the city in all the traffic has gone much better than you'd think possible, given the new stresses and strains of riding in such traffic. I'm thinking it may be because Thai drivers are used to sharing the road with all kinds of other vehicles (Toronto vehicles and bicycles take note!), and despite the challenging conditions know that there are others out there, and they are careful of them.

But there's no doubt that Thai motorcyclists are a little less careful than North Americans are. My favourite is the common practice of having a young child stand on the frame in front of the driver, tooling through the city. I had some fun this morning taking photos of some of the more imaginative uses for motorcycles, and I'll make a special photo gallery of them. I'll add to it as the trip progresses.

Other highlights of the week:

  • A visit to the "North Gate Jazz Coop," a venue just to the east of Chang Phuak. The place was very crowded, mostly farangs with a few Thai girlfriends, all tables full and standing room extending out over the sidewalk and into the street. You could buy beer from a gal with a cooler on the sidewalk. The jazz got going around 9:30 p.m., and was, I thought, pretty high quality. Best was the young Thai guy who did some channelling of Coltrane. Very enjoyable.

  • Have been frequenting an establishment called "Riders Corner," a pub/restaurant just inside the old city owned by a UK expat and his Thai wife. At first I went just because I was interested, but continued going because their "rice soup" makes a terrific breakfast. I took MF along for a visit, and the owner and he struck up the kind of conversation that avid motorcyclists have. MF bought a map of dirt trails, and considered the visit would have some good results for his own motorcycling. I thought that was cool.

  • While riding a complete circuit "around the mountain," we ran into several work elephants and drivers. While we were stopped at a coffee stand I spied some elephants walking through a nearby village, and was able to catch up to them and take some terrific snaps. Just after I took a particularly good one, I looked up and discovered that the elephant was about two metres away and coming straight for me. The driver had a good laugh at how startled I was, and told me, I'm quite sure, not to panic, as it would spook the elephant. He was only partly successful.

  • MF and I went down to the "entertainment district" for a Thai footrub. It was marvellous. Each foot gets a half hour of mauling, and the price is 120 baht (about four dollars). It's the first time I've ever had any
  • kind of a massage where I've felt at all different afterward. I felt like I was walking on air, for a while. Bonus: the "entertainment district" is also where the bar girls are, so great fun guessing which were the ladyboys. Also fun to watch all the young couples who were touring the district. Weird. After a quick tour of our own, we went home, sans bar girl or boy, of course.
  • I met MF's friend Brian Blackwell, an Irish gent who works in Thailand. One of his eccentricities is that he's built a large, very sophisticated remote-control model helicopter. We went out to the quarry, across from the Canyon View restaurant, and Brian put it through some paces. The 'copter has a HD video camera mounted on it, so later we got to watch the flight over the quarry from the helicopter's viewpoint. Since I can't imagine ever putting my money into such a venture, I was glad to see Brian's in action.

The other day while visiting a market, MF and I ran into Tom Fawthrop, a "special correspondent on Southeast Asia" for the Economist. A delightful guy, he's been super-helpful since he learned I was headed to Viet Nam. Next Wednesday I'm buying him dinner so I can pick his brain for contact info for the many, many people he knows in Viet Nam and Cambodia.

Finally, a note about Chiangmai's weather: being in Thailand's northwestern mountains, its climate is vastly different from that of Bangkok. It's not so hot, and it's not so humid. On the other hand, it's air really, really sucks. This problem is well-known, and it's particularly bad this time of year, as farmers are busy burning off their last crops, producing smoke that's apparently very high in very small (2.5 microns or less) particulates. Others think a lot of it comes from coal-burning in China. Whatever, many wealthy expats are skeddaddling right now for more agreeable zones (southern Cambodia being one of them, apparently). Many who remain, such as myself, have persistent raspy coughs.

A busy week, mostly motorcycle-riding, good food, and meeting people. It's taken a while to get it written down, hope it doesn't disappoint.


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